WASHINGTON — A cocktail of propaganda, conspiracy theory and disinformation — of the kind intoxicating to the masses in the darkest turns of history — is fueling delusion over the agonies of Jan. 6.
Hate is “love.” Violence is “peace.” The pro-Donald Trump attackers are patriots.
Months after the then-president’s supporters stormed the Capitol that winter day, Trump and his acolytes are taking this revisionism to a new and dangerous place — one of martyrs and warlike heroes, and of revenge. It’s a place where cries of “blue lives matter” have transformed into shouts of “f— the blue.”
The fact inversion about the siege is the latest in Trump’s contorted oeuvre of the “big lie” compendium, the most specious of which is that the election was stolen from him, when it was not.
It is rooted in the formula of potent propaganda through the ages: Say it loud, say it often, say it with the heft of political power behind you, and people will believe. Once spread by pamphlets, posters and word of mouth, now spread by swipe of finger, the result is the same: a passionate, unquestioning following.
Techniques of glorifying your side and demonizing the other with skewed information, if not outright lies, have been in play at least since World War I, when the U.S. government roused sentiment for the cause with posters depicting the German soldier as an ape-human with a willowy American maiden in his clutches. That paled next to what followed years later with Nazi Germany’s terrifying use of propaganda for the slaughter and subjugation of millions.
Whether the deception feeds warmongering or merely a defeated president’s ego, some of the methods are the same, like telling the same fabrication over and over until it sticks.
Trump perfected the art of repetition — about the “election hoax,” the “rigged election” and ”massive voter fraud,” with none of those accusations substantiated in the dozens of court cases and official post-election audits but engrained nonetheless among his supporters.
Four years ago, Trump appeared to equate white supremacists and racial justice protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his comment that there were “very fine people, on both sides.”
This time, in this telling, the very fine people on Jan. 6 were on one side: his.
For the other side — the police, overwhelmed for hours and bloodied in the insurrection — Trump only has an in-your-face question that doubles as a four-word conspiracy theory: “Who killed Ashli Babbitt?”
Those words have become a viral mantra meant to elevate Babbitt as a righteous martyr in the cause of liberty. They ricochet around the mainline social media platforms where Trump is banned for spreading misinformation but his followers still commiserate. The woman died from a police officer’s bullet fired as she tried to climb through the jagged glass of a smashed window toward the House chamber during the riot.
Babbitt has become the face of the insurrection — emblazoned on T-shirts and cheered in basement ballrooms at hotels around the country where conspiracy theorists gather to vent. In Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood, flyers are plastered on street lamps and building facades telling of an unveiling of a statue of Babbitt in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, on July 27, at “high noon.”
Trump and many Republicans have cycled through various characterizations of the insurrection, each iteration wholly unlike the previous one. The attackers were said to be leftist antifa followers in disguise. Then they were said to be overexcited tourists. Now they are heralded as foot soldiers for freedom.
Each iteration has required Americans to ignore the rage they saw on their screens, and some lawmakers to ignore that they were among the shocked targets of the attackers that day. The hunted now praise the hunters.
Taken together, the revisionists and their believers are “swimming in a vast sea of nonsense,” said Brendan Buck, a former top aide to onetime House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
That sea’s currents are familiar to historians who study what makes some conspiracy theories and propaganda persuasive.
Once people buy into the lies, there can be no convincing them they aren’t true, said Dolores Albarracin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of a coming book, “Creating Conspiracy Beliefs: How Our Thoughts are Shaped.”
Despite the well-documented facts about what happened on Jan. 6, believers often dismiss anyone who tries to set them straight by claiming they are either duped or part of the conspiracy, Albarracin said.
“The belief contains a device that protects it,” she said. “Nothing can invalidate the conspiracy theory. Trying to refute the theory proves the theory and signals you as a conspirator.”
DJ Peterson, an expert on authoritarianism and propaganda, is president of Longview Global Advisors, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm, and former director of the Eurasia Group and the RAND Corporation. He said that in an online world awash in information and a real world riven by polarization, “you pick and choose what you want to believe, including sticking your head in the sand.”
Trump, Peterson said, excels at amplifying claims that galvanize his core supporters and turn them against other Americans.
“That’s where the power of Trump is,” he said. “He’s good at picking up on these threads … that lower the level of trust and create division.”
Recent polls are consistent in illustrating the country’s divide over Trump and his post-election histrionics. In essence, two-thirds of the population is against him; two-thirds of Republicans for him. In one of the latest, Quinnipiac found that 66% of Republicans consider President Joe Biden to have been illegitimately elected.
That number and others like it in multiple polls represent tens of millions of people who were hoodwinked into believing allegations of election fraud that have been thoroughly investigated and refuted, including by Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr. Trump’s fabrications have stuck and now undergird the attempts by him and those closest to him to glorify the Jan. 6 mob.
“The consequence of lying is you kind of never get back to where you were before,” said Harvard historian Jill Lepore, whose podcast, “The Last Archive,” explores hoaxes, deceptions and what has happened to truth. “That’s what’s pernicious about our particular moment.”
Of Trump, she said: “His method is generally to just create chaos so that people really don’t know which way to look.”
In the case of the insurrection, his followers looked away. An aggressive amnesia seems to have taken hold over how ugly it all was, even though the scenes that were broadcast and streamed in real time are forever.
Swarming to the Capitol after a staging rally where Trump told them to “fight like hell,” and vowed, falsely, that he would be right there with them, the attackers beat the vastly outnumbered law enforcement officers, injuring scores of them. In one particularly awful case, an officer was crushed against a door by people pushing to get in, his mouth bleeding as the side of his face pressed against the glass of the door.
Lawmakers inside ran for their lives, hiding for hours as the mob wandered the halls of Congress holding up Trump flags. The assailants called out for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and wanted Trump’s vice president, who was there, too. “Hang Mike Pence,” they chanted.
Babbitt was part of the group that was trying to beat down the doors of the House chamber as Capitol Police officers were evacuating the House floor and as some members were still trapped in the upper gallery. The officers used furniture to barricade the glass doors separating the hallway from the Speaker’s Lobby to try to stave off the attackers, who were breaking glass with their fists, flagpoles and other objects.
Only three police officers were guarding the doors on the other side of the stacked furniture as at least 20 attackers tried to get in, screaming, “F— the blue!” and “Break it down!” One smashed the door glass next to an officer’s head; another warned the officers they would be hurt if they didn’t get out of the way.
A Capitol Police lieutenant pointed his gun. “Gun!” “Gun!” the attackers shouted as the hysteria reached a fever pitch. They started to lift Babbitt up, to climb through the window. The officer fired one round.
Babbitt was struck in the shoulder. She later died. The officer was cleared of wrongdoing, and his name was not released.
Trump now states falsely — and with a stream of repetitions — that she was shot “right in the head.”
“They were there for one reason, the rigged election,” he told Fox News a week ago. “They felt the election was rigged. That’s why they were there. And they were peaceful people. These were great people. The crowd was unbelievable. And I mentioned the word love. The love — the love in the air, I have never seen anything like it.”
Klepper reported from Providence, R.I.